Laurie Keller is a children's book author and illustrator of books including THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA, ARNIE THE DOUGHNUT and DO UNTO OTTERS: A BOOK ABOUT MANNERS. When Laurie isn't busy making books or traveling, she enjoys spending time outdoors at her Michigan home, hiking in the woods, cross-country skiing or splashing in Lake Michigan. This June, you’ll publish THE ADVENTURES OF ARNIE THE DOUGHNUT: BOWLING ALLEY BANDIT. It seems that your beloved picture book character is growing up! What were some of the challenges you faced transforming this character for the new series of chapter book adventures?
He is growing up (typed as I dab a little tear from my eye). I had been trying to think up some early chapter book ideas when my editor, Christy Ottaviano, suggested I try writing about Arnie since so many kids at school visits ask me to write more books about him. That had never occurred to me since Arnie was happily settled as—**SPOILER ALERT**—Mr. Bing’s doughnut-dog. It was challenging figuring out what to do with him as a doughnut-dog in future books because I thought it might be too limiting. I worked around it though by having Arnie tell how he loves being Mr. Bing’s doughnut-dog but that “some places don’t allow dogs—not even doughnut-dogs”. So sometimes he’s a doughnut-dog and sometimes he’s just a doughnut (“a chocolate-covered sprinkle doughnut, that is!).
Another challenge was that since this type of book is probably going to be read by a child unaccompanied by an adult, I had to make sure that the jokes were ones that they would “get”. In my picture books I throw in lots of jokes and speech bubbles all over the pages. I know that sometimes kids will understand them and sometimes not but there’s usually an adult to explain it, or if they don’t want to read them it’s not a big deal because they’re not a main part of the story. But with this chapter book format, the jokes are front and center. There were many that I took out after they fell flat when I tested them on kids (one of my favorites featured Marilyn Monroe but the kids didn’t know who she was—darn!). It was a good exercise in editing and not getting too attached to a joke and I think the book is stronger now having stream-lined it that way. When the first ARNIE THE DOUGHNUT book debuted in 2003, the New York Times Book Review declared you “a goofball and a genius.” How does the new Arnie book display both of these qualities?
Oh, my—I don’t know! That review was the dream review, for sure. I hope the chapter book has the same feel as the picture book. I tried to get into Arnie’s sticky, doughnut head and let him tell me where he wanted to go. Again, I think the editing process helped. The first drafts didn’t sound like Arnie, but eventually after many re-writes his voice started to shine through. Once Christy started her edits there were a couple parts she asked me to change because “Arnie wouldn’t say it that way.” I love that she knows Arnie well enough to pick up on that! On your website, you have lots of fun and educational materials for teachers to take into the classroom, and many of your picture books include teachable moments. Why?
I didn’t start out with the idea of having teachable moments, but when the idea for my first book, THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA, popped into my head, I thought using the states as characters might be a fun way to help kids learn about U.S. geography. I enjoyed taking a topic that many kids find “boring” and trying to liven it up a bit. So when I’m inspired to do so it’s a very fun challenge. You do a lot of author visits. When you work with children, what do you feel is the most important lesson that you instill in them before you leave their school?
MOST IMPORTANT LESSON: before they eat a doughnut, ask it if it minds being eaten. If it answers yes, then don’t eat it. If it doesn’t answer, then go ahead and eat it. It’s just a way to avoid a very awkward situation.
The OTHER IMPORTANT LESSON: most authors don’t write their stories one time and they’re done. I let them know that I write my stories over and over and over again before it gets to where I like it and that if they re-write and edit their stories or assignments several times, over the course of a few days if possible, they’ll be in different moods each time and might make changes that help by looking at it with a “fresh eye.” In a former life, you were a greeting card illustrator for Hallmark. How did that job influence the path you’ve taken as a children’s book author/illustrator?
While working at Hallmark I spent many lunch hours and weekends in a great children’s book store called The Reading Reptile in Kansas City. Initially, I was inspired by the art because I had started making greeting cards for kids, but eventually I started paying attention to the writing as well. I hadn’t looked at children’s books in many years and was so inspired by the funny, quirky books I was seeing—especially by Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, William Steig, and Petra Mathers, to name a few. I became hooked on kids’ books and knew that I wanted to try to write and illustrate my own someday. Now I feel so lucky and grateful to be doing that for my job! Come see Laurie Keller at IRA 2013, where she’ll be participating in “The Serious Business of Writing Humor: The Importance of Funny Fiction in the Classroom” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors Michael Buckley, Andy Griffiths, and Devin Scillian. It will be moderated by Colby Sharp.
© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With… Devin Scillian (MEMOIRS OF A HAMSTER) 5 Questions With... Salina Yoon (PENGUIN AND PINECONE)